On ‘New old books’ and their importance to history as well as today’s current affairs

This blogpost is about the old Penguin/Pelican series of affordable books on politics and current affairs dating from the mid-20th Century.

Above – four examples from the Penguin Early Pelican series – which has been indexed here. In the run up to the Second World War, they also produced a number of Penguin Special Editions with some very prominent names writing short books analysing what was happening.

“Why don’t we have updated versions of these around today?”

Good question – we could do with them, available on Kindle, online, as well as in cheap paperback/pamphlet form. Furthermore they need to be widely and prominently available, not tucked away on the second floor of a city centre bookshop where only a select group of shoppers choose to go. Which reminds me of one interesting finding from the London riots of 2011 – Bookshops were largely untouched directly by the violence.

For those of you interested in town planning, the Town and Country Planning Association has digitised its back archive which you can search through here.

***Read all of these books damn you!***

Actually it’s not like that at all. Such admonishments may have worked in Eglantyne Jebb’s day, but tend not to work today. Not least because we are bombarded by so much noise through advertising in print and on electronic devices.

It’s more that in the face of the international assault on democracies and civic institutions from a variety of different sources, some more well funded than others, we have to build resilience in civic society. Part of that resilience involves education, and part of that education has to involve taking a look back at what we used to have that educated the population on the functioning of state & society, & trying to pull out the good bits.

“No, you have to have read and memorised all of these books by all of these men on this approved reading list before I will engage in debate with you!”

Despite not being in the greatest of health, I managed to scrape a ‘pass’ on the predecessor course to the current Undergraduate Certificate in Politics, run by the impressive Cllr Dr Carina O’Reilly (Lab – Arbury), formerly deputy leader of Cambridge City Council. The reason why I mention this is because for those of you that want to do an accredited course in this field, here is one place to do so. At the same time, ***it is not for the faint-hearted***. The amount of reading involved is huge. It’s a Cambridge University course – what do you expect? It is also at a level that is intellectually demanding and intense. Its target audience (even ignoring the fees) is not the general public. The challenge then is how to make political issues and public policy accessible to the general public that make up the electorate.

That’s where these old pelican books come in.

One excellent example that made for a wonderful, fast-paced read was Mark Stephens’ short biography of that giant of a politician, Ernest Bevin. It is titled “Ernest Bevin: Unskilled Labourer and World Statesman” There are copies going very cheap on AbeBooks. His is a rags to power (as opposed to riches) story, starting out as a boy labourer with no qualifications, rising through the ranks of his trade union, the Transport and General Workers Union to a position where he became indispensable to both Churchill and Attlee in the wartime Coalition as Minister for Labour. On reading it I learnt that Parliament placed in him powers that no other government minister had before or has had since – even in the present pandemic: that is the power to direct an individual citizen into a specific occupation, or groups of citizens into specific occupations for the purposes of assisting the war effort.

Younger party political activists learning their own party’s history

The historian in me is often asking the question of how we got to here, whether the issue is local, national, or international. I’m currently sponsoring a group of Cambridge students on the Cambridge Hub’s Social Innovation Programme who have opted to undertake a project on the theme of local history. One of the history undergraduates said to me that she had spent all this time reading history at Cambridge but none on the history ‘of Cambridge – the town’. Hence participating in my group.

Similar sentiments can be heard across political parties and social movements – how many people are familiar with even the basic histories of the parties or movements that they are part of? Who were the people and what were the achievements of those that went before them? That’s not to say that everyone needs to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of what went on before. Rather – and this is the case for longer term/ongoing campaigns – it puts the day-today activities in a much broader historical context – in particular what to hand onto future generations.

One of the things I can’t recall ever doing in my years as a trade union branch organiser is practicing then what I’m preaching now. I wasn’t sent any materials on the histories of my trade union nor did it occur to me to ask. I should have done. Not least it would have explained the background to some of the inevitable factional struggles inside a large hierarchical organisation. Again, on AbeBooks there are a number of Penguin/Pelican old introductions to trade unions going cheap. The context is inevitably very different given the publication dates – nearly all pre-dating the Internet and some pre-dating even Thatcher. Which makes the point about the need for radically refreshed and updated histories to be published for today’s audiences.

There are some party political publications – just type in the name of the political party in ‘publisher’ and see what comes up – for example the Liberal Democrats here, or their predecessors the Liberal Party. If anything, the longer established political parties should really digitise and publish for free their historical past papers – even though opponents will inevitably try to look for content that might be politically embarrassing today.

For the Labour Party the publications list is much longer, being the larger institution. Their individual policy pamphlets make for interesting reading, not least because the problems they cover (housing, transport, education, health) never go away. Furthermore, the onus at present is on them as the official opposition to the government to come up with alternatives. So what was tried in the past and why did these not work? Or perhaps might past policies have more success in this information and social media age? There’s an even larger archive of publications by the Fabian Society – which has been digitised and made available free to access here by the LSE.

Talking of the party in government, there are just as many old publications from the Conservatives. The list of publications alone makes for interesting reading – in particular the individual policy pamphlets. There’s a study waiting to be carried out by someone comparing the different publications of the political parties in the second half of the 20th Century – in particular when parties are in opposition. This is when circumstances should be forcing them to do something different to what they have done before.

Finally there are a handful from The Greens, though their published histories don’t go back as far as their party political opponents. Some content-related publications such as the Blue Peter Green Book from 1989, which was my first book on the environment, reminds us of the issues that environmentalists have been campaigning on for decades – as well as asking us some very difficult questions such as ‘Why is the destruction of the rainforests actually getting worse?’. Turns out the stuff that I thought was all sorted through campaigning in the 1990s such as protecting the rainforests, dealing with the hole in the ozone layer, and stopping live animal exports was not in fact stopped.

But the point remains…there were many political and public policy books that were made widely available to the public in times gone by. What happened?

And is a solution simply to try and reverse this, or to try and account for how the world has changed (for example compare town centre high streets in the 1980s with record/music shops and photography development outlets vs smartphone and vaping shops today).

One publisher, Verso, is trying the book club model. This independent publisher of radical left texts is following in the tradition of the old Left book club – relaunched recently. The impact of the Lockdown in response to the Covid19 Pandemic has enabled the rapid switch to online video conferencing in the office workplace, which also has the spin-off of a critical mass of people now becoming familiar with video conferencing. It remains to be seen if we see such virtual book clubs emerging over the next few years.

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